Stepparenting: The Attachment Difference
Ron L. Deal
Have you ever wondered why one person hears the word of God and follows it, while another ignores it? Why does one person see—and heed—the wisdom of God’s laws for holy living and another thinks them foolishness? One difference between these two responses is attachment.
Relationships people have with the heavenly Father come in many shapes and sizes, with many layers. Some only believe that He exists, while others have elevated Him to the Lord of their life. Some float in and out of their relationship with God, but others are deeply attached to Him. A similar dynamic occurs in parenting.
Attachment is a psychological term used to describe the deep emotional connection and trust we experience in intimate relationships. Infants must experience attachment from their primary caregiver (usually their mother) if they are to develop a strong sense of trust and self-assurance; this provides them a secure base from which to explore the world. If someone is deeply attached to God, they trust His leading and guidance, respect His commands, and have a sense of their own value (i.e., they are loved and worthwhile). But if someone has limited attachment to God, He has limited influence in their choices.
To become effective leaders of children, stepparents must develop a secure bond with their stepchildren. And just as God never thrusts Himself on anyone unless they have invited Him in to their life, stepparents must pace their authority based on a developing attachment with stepchildren. Biological parents are “born” with strong attachment to their children; they have a built-in blood-bond connection that affords them love and trust—and respect—from their children. Stepparents, however, must grow this deep attachment in order to increase their parental authority and influence. The contrasts are striking:
- Children are quick to offer grace to biological parents in conflict, but have a low tolerance for disappointment from stepparents.
- Biological parents are afforded “insider” status while stepparents are sometimes viewed with a “you don’t belong, outsider” perspective.
- Children love biological parents, period. It isn’t decided; it’s automatic and deeply felt, while love for a stepparent must be nurtured, tested and retested, and ultimately chosen.
- Auto-approval. This attitude says, “If mom says it, it must be right” and results in a natural bias toward approval of a biological parent’s actions. Stepparents typically do not receive a benefit-of-the-doubt attitude.
- Auto-trust. Children assume that bio parents can be trusted (even when proven otherwise). Stepparents have to prove their trustworthiness, again and again.
- And finally, bio parents are granted access to a child. “My space is your space.” If, however, a stepparent moves in too quickly, it can be perceived as a violation of the child’s personal boundaries.
Clearly, attachment gives biological parents a profound advantage in parenting. Stepparents who do not understand these differences can easily sabotage themselves by trampling on their stepchildren. Consider these principle suggestions.
Building Attachment a Step at a Time
- A watched pot never boils. Love and caring takes time to develop and you won’t hurry it along with worry. Children under the age of five may bond with a stepparent within one to two years while older children, teenagers, or adults may take many years. Persist in trying to deepen relationship while enjoying the relationship you have today.
Loyalty may be a barrier. I’ve written before about how children are often emotionally torn when they enjoy
a stepparent. The fear that liking them somehow harms their non-custodial, biological parent creates guilt that
confuses the attachment process. Here’s how you can help:
- Don’t be offended by a child’s loyalty and encourage regular contact with biological parents.
- Never criticize their biological parent in front of the child, as it will sabotage the child's opinion of you.
- Don't try to replace an uninvolved or deceased biological parent. Consider yourself an added parent figure in the child's life, not a replacement parent. Note that a child’s emotional attachment to a deceased parent continues well after death. Children should be encouraged, especially by the stepparent, to keep alive their thoughts and feelings toward their deceased parent. Biological parents can talk with them about how they can “make room” in their heart for their stepparent while also keeping alive their parent’s memory.
- Follow the cardinal rule: Let children set the pace for their relationship with you. If your stepchildren are open to you, don't leave them disappointed. If, however, they remain aloof and cautious, don't force yourself on them. As time brings you together, slowly increase your personal involvement and affections. Together you can forge a workable relationship that grows over time.
Ron L. Deal is Founder & President of Smart Stepfamilies™ and Director of FamilyLife Blended® for FamilyLife®. He is a bestselling author, highly sought-after speaker, and therapist specializing in marriage enrichment and blended family education. Learn more here.